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Inventing the Movies

Scott Kirsner, a Variety contributor, has written a tome chronicling how Hollywood has battled every major technological innovation that has come along. Naysayers didn't believed sound, and color film would take off and to this day are dickering over who will pay for 3-D theater conversions.

Scott Kirsner, a Variety contributor, has written a tome chronicling how Hollywood has battled every major technological innovation that has come along. Naysayers didn’t believed sound, and color film would take off and to this day are dickering over who will pay for 3-D theater conversions. Some innovations, like Paramount’s early 1950s video-on-demand venture, were simply too far ahead of their time but others, Kirsner writes, are best seen “through the rear-view mirror, as either examples of brilliant showmanship or mounting desperation.” In the excerpt below Kirsner writes about Disney’s resistance to computer animation.

Pixar co-founder Edwin Catmull remembered talking to people at Disney’s animation group about the potential of computer animation, including Frank Thomas, part of Walt’s original cohort of animators. (Thomas had been responsible for many famous Disney scenes, such as the moment in “Bambi” when Bambi and Thumper slide playfully on the ice.)

“Frank Thomas was intrigued, but the animators didn’t know what it meant,” said Catmull. “Our color images were fairly crude, and they definitely weren’t up to the standards there.” Computer animation’s boosters understood that the software was always improving, and their computers were getting faster every year, but most people, Catmull realized, “didn’t measure the technology against the arc that it was on.” They didn’t understand how fast it was progressing, and so they dismissed it as a science fair project.

“Disney was a place that was kind of frozen in time,” said John Lasseter, a gregarious young animator who started working at the studio in 1979. “When Walt died, the desire to experiment died, too.” Lasseter was one of the few Disney animators intrigued by the possibilities of computer-assisted animation, in part as a result of having seen an early screening of 1982’s “Tron.” “What blew my mind was the potential of having a truly three-dimensional environment that you could control like hand-drawn animation,” he said.

Lasseter wanted to make some experimental short films to see how computers could be used in future Disney projects, but “I kept bumping up against people saying ‘no,'” he recalled. “My reasoning was, we should try this. With ‘Tron,’ for the first time in decades, Disney is really ahead of everybody else in an area. But the work for ‘Tron’ had been done by outside companies, and all of that knowledge was going to be gone. But there was tremendous resistance in the animation leadership.”

The executive who’d been in charge of “Tron,” Tom Wilhite, gave Lasseter the green light to create a snippet of animation based on the Maurice Sendak book “Where the Wild Things Are.” (Wilhite was part of Disney’s live action group, not its animation studio.) It would blend scenery, lighting and shadows produced by a computer with characters drawn by hand.

“I had this vision where we’d show the ‘Wild Things’ test to Ron Miller [the president of Walt Disney Productions, and Walt’s son-in-law], and there would be no way they could say no to ‘Brave Little Toaster,'” the computer-animated short that Lasseter imagined would be his next project.

Instead, Miller asked about the costs of computer animation, and Lasseter told him that they were comparable to producing hand-drawn animation. “‘The only reason to do computer animation is if it makes it cheaper or faster to make animation,'” Lasseter recalls Miller telling him. “Then he stood up and walked out,” Lasseter said. Later that day, Lasseter was fired from the animation group — and immediately rehired by Wilhite, who wanted him to finish up the “Wild Things” test. In 1984, Lasseter moved to northern California and started working for the Lucasfilm Computer Division (Pixar’s predecessor) as an artist. There, he said, “Ed’s dream became my dream, of doing an animated feature film someday.”

From “Inventing the Movies,” 2008.

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